We often hear about Afghanistan’s domestic, regional, and transnational challenges each posed by the country’s abject poverty, the Taliban’s cross-border insurgency, and terrorism and drug trafficking that collectively destabilize Afghanistan. But we seldom pay attention to the greatest challenge posed to Afghanistan’s nation-building process by a lack of aid resources coupled with weak strategic coordination of aid implementation by the international community. Some of these challenges deserve special mention both to help overcome them and to avoid collective failure in a country where the international community continues to have the highest chance of success in view of Afghans’ optimism for a better future and their unlimited support for the international peace-building efforts in Afghanistan.
Ends and Means Mismatched
First, observers of Afghanistan are certain to recall that despite the tremendous rebuilding needs of Afghanistan, the international community re-engaged in the country with a very light footprint from the beginning. In the initial planning stages for the war in Afghanistan, coalition member states agreed that a sound strategy had to include and combine combat operations, humanitarian relief, and stability and reconstruction efforts. They seemed to have followed the prescribed hierarchy of nation-building tasks, whereby as the Taliban were overthrown, some humanitarian aid was provided to Afghans. But the international community failed to adjust their initial assessments of working towards longer-term stabilization and reconstruction efforts, which continue to lack the necessary degree of resources, civilian and military coordination, and firm political commitment from some of the coalition governments and their parliaments.
The lead nations have neither fully committed to the task nor have they ensured that there is a match between ends and means. As former US Special Envoy to Afghanistan James Dobbins notes, “mismatches between inputs, as measured in personnel and money, and desired outcomes, as measured in imposed social transformation, are the most common cause for failure of nation-building efforts.” This is exactly the direction Afghanistan is heading towards at the moment because too few troops and resources were committed to the country from the beginning. In addition to this, the invasion and occupation of Iraq shortchanged Afghanistan’s rebuilding priorities, robbing the new Afghan government of much needed resources to establish its effective governance and security presence throughout the country. This has been established in recent reports on Afghan relief. According to a recent report by the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), for example, Afghanistan received just $57 per capita in foreign assistance, whilst Bosnia and East Timor received $679 and $233 per capita respectively, in the two years following international intervention. Per capita security assistance to Afghanistan also woefully remains low with 1.5 foreign troops per 1,000 people compared to 7 per 1,000 in Iraq and 19 per 1,000 in Bosnia.
Consequently, too few troops and resources have proven useful for the potential peace spoilers, who had destabilized Afghanistan and committed serious human rights violations and atrocities against the Afghan people throughout 1990s. For example, the Taliban leadership regrouped and reorganized in Pakistan soon after their fall in 2001, and began launching cross-border terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan as early as 2003. While there has been recognition of the necessity to address Afghanistan’s complex rebuilding needs, resource levels to the country remain quite modest compared to other recent post-conflict countries, as pointed out earlier.
The Missing Nation Builder
Almost seven years since the fall of the Taliban, no clear institutional framework for Afghanistan’s nation-building and reconstruction has emerged. Despite broad international consensus and goodwill, for the rebuilding of Afghanistan from the beginning, the United Nations remained a weak player in Afghanistan until the recent appointment of a high profile special envoy. This is despite the fact that the United Nations provides the most suitable institutional framework for most nation-building measures, one with a comparatively low cost structure, a comparatively high success rate, and the greatest degree of international legitimacy. While the UN has played major operational roles in the more recent post-conflict countries including Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor, the role of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan remains one of political consulting, providing good offices, and promoting human rights.
In the beginning, the UN was deliberately denied an operational role in Afghanistan, perhaps, due to fears that donor fatigue would soon kick in, resulting in undelivered pledges of assistance to Afghanistan. Hence, a lead-nation strategy was adopted, whereby major resourceful countries assumed responsibility for the reform and building of Afghanistan’s key state institutions. The lead-nation strategy assigned the United States to reform and build the Afghan National Army (ANA); Germany the Afghan National Police (ANP); Japan to disarm, demobilize, and fully reintegrate (DDR) former combatants; Britain to fight and eliminate narcotics; and Italy to reform and build the judicial system.
Except for substantive progress in the reform and building of ANA, the other sectors saw nominal or no progress, because although progress in each sector depended on progress in other sectors given their inter-connectedness, the lead nations neither established a collaborative mechanism to ensure strategic coordination across their assigned tasks nor did they bring enough resources to bear on implementing the reforms effectively. In the end, the lead-nation strategy was discontinued, as the designated countries reconsidered their roles as lead-partners—reasoning that only Afghanistan should be the lead-nation with them as its major implementing partners.
Local Ownership or Afghans outside the Car?
Although a buzz word of the aid community, local ownership as “Afghans in the driver’s seat” of the rebuilding process is mostly absent, since most of the aid resources bypass the Afghan government and go to foreign non-profit and private sector institutions. An estimated 40% of aid goes back to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries, some $6 billion since 2001, according to ACBAR. For example, each full-time expatriate consultant costs $250,000-$500,000 a year.
With resources diverted from Afghan state institutions, the government can hardly retain its competitive employees for effective service delivery, and often lose them to higher paid jobs with international organizations. The resulting weak institutional capacity coupled with underpayment causes corruption in the government system. This in turn harms the legitimacy of the government in the public eyes, leaving a deleterious effect on both governance and security across Afghanistan. In the long run, consequently, the international community will have still inherited a failing state in Afghanistan, unless they truly commit to enabling Afghans and their new state institutions to stand on their own feet to drive Afghanistan’s long-term development.
Strategic Coordination in Words, Never in Action
A multiplicity of actors with overlapping mandates, competitive relations, and minimal accountability for performance, characterize international presence in Afghanistan. The divergent and diffuse efforts of donors have created diverse opportunities for peace spoilers including the Taliban, drug traffickers, and criminals to undermine and derail the nation-building process in Afghanistan. Efforts to enhance structures for strategic coordination on the ground, both within the UN and beyond, have been frustrated by the sheer numbers of actors involved, the limited extent to which these actors accept the coordination authority and the absence of policy coordination structures at the headquarters level.
More than 70 countries, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations are present in Afghanistan. Yet, they have consistently worked outside of the Afghan government. For example, of all technical assistance to Afghanistan, which accounts for a quarter of all aid to the country, only one-tenth is coordinated among donors or with the government. Nor is there sufficient collaboration on project work, which inevitably leads to duplication or incoherence of activities by different donors. This has seriously undermined the Afghan government’s ability to build its capacity for effective governance and implementation of the rule of law.
This Thursday at the Paris Support Conference, the Afghan government will launch the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) in an effort to jumpstart the rebuilding process and to provide strategic guidance and coherence to international aid efforts in Afghanistan. In addition, the government of Afghanistan will seek $50 billion in financial assistance from the international community to help implement the short- and long-term objectives of its integrated strategy for improving security, strengthening governance and the rule of law, and providing social and economic facilities and opportunities for the Afghan population.
While generously pledging to fund the ANDS, donors must build on the lessons learned from six years of nation building in Afghanistan to ensure that their aid resources are used effectively through close coordination with Afghan partners, based on sound policies that are centered on local ownership of the development process, so that Afghans themselves can take responsibility for the future of their country.
Failure to do so will repeat more of the same—resulting in additional pet projects and ad hoc quick fixes without sustainability at all. It is obvious that when tax payers in donor countries learn that their precious aid monies for Afghanistan are continually wasted, they will eventually tire and most likely withdraw their support from Afghanistan altogether.
Neglected before, Afghans do not want their country to return to the chaos and violence of 1990s that made Afghanistan a no man’s land, a terrorist base for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. As we learned from the 9/11 tragedy and the suffering of the Afghan people throughout the 1990s, a failed Afghanistan is not an option for international peace and security. Success must be the only way forward.
The Paris Support Conference offers a vital opportunity for all stake holders—Afghan and international alike—to address the key rebuilding challenges facing Afghanistan and to commit firmly to working together to implement the objectives of the ANDS for a free and prosperous Afghanistan.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org